SANTA FE, N.M. — Two state Children Youth and Families Department caseworkers who were disciplined in the wake of a Pojoaque toddler’s death from alleged abuse earlier this year have appealed, saying that Gov. Susana Martinez’s personal involvement in the case came at their expense.
Both the governor and her Children, Youth and Families secretary “made misleading public statements” about the case to discredit the two “for political purposes” and to further her “political position and agenda,” CYFD investigator Donald Gallegos says in his appeal, filed Friday with the State Personnel Board.
A statement Friday from the governor’s office said Martinez “strongly disagrees that protecting children is ‘a political issue.’ ”
Gallegos, who looked into allegations of abuse of 3-year-old Leland Valdez months before he died, was suspended for 15 days after the boy’s death in January. Fellow caseworker and CYFD supervisor Gabrielle James was fired.
The allegations of abuse were made by the boy’s biological father against the child’s biological mother last August. At the time, the child was in the custody of his father. But Leland was later returned to his mother by a state district judge when the father failed to show up for a custody hearing.
The mother and her boyfriend — Tabetha VanHoltz and Steven Gallegos — have been charged with child abuse following Leland’s death from severe head and body injuries while he was in his mother’s custody.
Within days of the child’s death, Martinez, a former prosecutor, announced she was getting involved in the case. The governor said she feared children were being put at risk and CYFD employees were “protected” as a result of flawed policies at the agency.
The governor later revealed that three complaints had been made against James herself for child abuse, and that one of those cases had been substantiated, although the case was not referred to prosecutors and no criminal charges were filed.
Gallegos says in his appeal that he was questioned by CYFD personnel at length following the child’s death and the governor’s involvement, and that what he said was “taken out of context and (was) the result of feeling badly for the plight” of the child.
The CYFD review of his actions wasn’t and couldn’t have been fair and impartial, given the governor’s involvement in the case and her misleading public comments, his appeal says.
James makes similar allegations in the appeal of her firing, also filed with the Personnel Board this week. Because department officials attended Martinez’s news conference where the governor revealed “confidential personal information about James,” the department in effect “ratified” the governor’s call for James’ dismissal, the notice of appeal says, noting that the governor’s actions may have tainted proceedings “so that James cannot receive a fair adjudication …”
James also noted in her appeal that the Santa Fe CYFD office was understaffed at the time of abuse investigation involving Leland, and questioned whether caseloads at that office were “fair and reasonable.”
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Martinez’s office said that it hadn’t yet reviewed the filings from Gallegos or James and couldn’t comment on specifics.
“The Governor stands by her reaction and statements after the death of Leland Valdez, and strongly disagrees that protecting children is ‘a political issue,’ ” the statement said. “Protecting innocent children from abuse is a top priority for Governor Martinez; it has been throughout her career, and it will be in this administration. The immediate concern and response of both the Governor and (CYFD) Secretary (Yolanda) Berumen-Deines reflects just how seriously this administration takes the preservation of our children’s well-being.”
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office also was involved in investigating the abuse allegations. Neither the sheriff nor Gallegos could substantiate the boy’s father’s complaints that the mother was abusing him in August, although the sheriff’s department has acknowledged there was a delay and the department didn’t submit a report on the case to the district attorney’s office until around the time of the child’s death.
A Sept. 13 memo closing the investigation by James, attached to Gallegos’ appeal, concludes with a note to check with a sheriff’s office detective and that “if he feels he can file charges against a perp, restaff.”
In appealing his suspension, Gallegos said that he followed CYFD protocols in the case as well as his supervisors’ instructions. Because the boy was in the custody of his father, Gallegos determined that the child was in a safe environment at the time he made his case report, in September.
Gallegos “was not aware that there was a district court proceeding regarding custody” and “is not responsible for the failure of the biological father to appear at the proceeding,” or the resultant court order returning the child to his mother, Gallegos said in his appeal.
In his response to CYFD’s notice of suspension, Gallegos said that “political considerations and pressure have been allowed to create this harsh disciplinary action,” and that the department was trying “to make Donald Gallegos a scapegoat for acts over which he had no control.”